The nutritional establishment has long been telling us that we should consume a lot of grains and low-fat dairy products, including milk. Over the past decade, it has become increasingly clear that this recommendation, which is deeply rooted in the paradigm that forms the foundation of contemporary mainstream nutrition and is by many almost unquestioningly accepted as trustworthy, doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.
A new study out of Umeå University in Sweden is the latest in a series of studies that suggest that grain-free, dairy-free hunter-gatherer type diets are healthier for us than diets rich in whole grains and/or dairy products. This stack of scientific research is now getting so voluminous that it can no longer be ignored. Mainstream nutritional authorities may soon have to face reality: a reality that conflicts with some of their deeply anchored beliefs.
Is the tide turning?
The study mentioned above is particularly interesting, for a number of reasons. First of all, whereas a typical clinical trial only lasts for a few months, this one had a 2-year intervention period. Second, it has a lot of interesting endpoints. Third, in the study, a Paleolithic-type diet was pitted against a diet based on the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR). Such a diet is generally considered to be an extremely healthy diet. The Paleolithic diet didn’t knock the NNR diet out of the park; however, it did get a better “total score”, in the sense that somewhat greater health improvements was observed in the Paleolithic diet group than in the NNR group.
For some reason, after I read about the study, I was left with a feeling that something is going to change. I’m not so stupid as to think that the professors and nutritionists who are responsible for designing dietary guidelines for the public will suddenly put the old dietary guidelines aside, adopt a Darwinian way of thinking, and then proceed to create a new and somewhat different set of dietary recommendations that are rooted in our hunter-gatherer past.
What I do think though, is that the study can help push the mainstream nutritional community to recognize that the Paleolithic nutrition concept is both valid and powerful. It can no longer be dismissed as something flimsy or bizarre, even by people who’ve long perceived the whole Paleo thing to be nothing more than a set of crazy, non-scientific beliefs formed by a bunch of people who lift rocks, eat almost only meat, and shun modern technology.
Darwinian nutritionists are not surprised by the results of the studies that have pitted Paleolithic-type diets against “prudent” diets such as the Mediterranean diet. To them, the results merely verify that natural selection has never gotten around to reconfiguring the human body so that it matches well with a post-agricultural nutritional environment. Nutritionists who don’t have a habit of thinking evolutionarily, on the other hand, are likely caught off guard by what the studies in this area show.
Many mainstream nutritionists and nutritional scientists are reluctant to even consider changing their minds unless they are presented with hard evidence derived from Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs): the gold standard of experimental scientific research. That’s why it’s so good that more and more RCTs on Paleolithic nutrition have been coming down the pipeline. Those RCTs aren’t needed to convince Darwinian thinkers that we can learn a lot about health and nutrition from our Paleolithic ancestors. They already know that we can. It’s mainstream nutritionists and public health authorities that need convincing!
There are several similarities between the Paleolithic nutrition model and the dietary model that was created by government-funded public health agencies
Here on the site, I’ve repeatedly highlighted the fact that several of the recommendations that make up the official dietary guidelines in industrialized nations such as the US are not evolutionarily sound. They conflict with Darwinian science. With that said, it’s important to point out that there are actually many similarities between the Paleolithic nutrition model and the dietary model that was created by government-funded public health agencies.
The diet that you end up with if you follow the official dietary guidelines is low in salt, sugar, refined fat, and saturated fat and fairly rich in fruits, vegetables, lean meat, and seafood. In that respect, it’s no different from the Paleolithic diet. What makes it different is primarily that it contains grains and dairy foods, which are excluded from Paleolithic-type diets. One of the primary reasons why this difference receives so much attention is that grains and dairy foods make up a substantial part of the diet of a lot of contemporary people.
What all of this is to say is that the difference between the Paleolithic nutrition model and the dietary model that was created by government-funded public health agencies is not as big as a lot of people seem to think it is.
Should everyone eat a Paleolithic-type diet?
The Paleolithic diet, AKA the original human diet, AKA the diet that we humans have been consuming throughout 99.6% of the time our genus has been around, is a very healthful and nutritious diet. Our current public health situation would undoubtedly have been very different if every human alive ate a Paleolithic diet. That said, it’s important to recognize that our environment differs in several respects from the one our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in, and that this has nutritional implications.
When contemporary dietary guidelines for the public are created, other concerns besides concerns directly related to people’s health and well-being are typically taken into account. In particular sustainability issues are a factor. Obviously, every human alive today can’t eat a protein-heavy hunter-gatherer diet rich in grass-fed and wild meats. In other words, when the results of nutrition studies or anthropological research are to be translated into public dietary guidelines or population-wide nutrition programmes, one may have to make certain compromises. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that there is no single, specific diet that works for everyone, irrespective of health status, ancestry, and physical activity levels.
With that said, as I see it, the average person could undoubtedly benefit from restructuring his/her diet so that it more closely conforms to the principles that are integral to the Paleolithic nutrition model. It’s long past time that Darwinian nutrition concepts are integrated into the foundations of the field of nutrition.